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Ukrainian Master Sergeant Lishy, who commands a squad of three tanks fighting on the southern part of the front line, is looking forward to trading the Soviet-designed T-64 he has been fighting with for western tanks.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Idling behind the cover of a small hill less than five kilometres from the Russian front line in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, Master Sergeant Lishy is effusive about the mud-caked tank he calls “Baby.”

“It’s a lifesaver,” he says affectionately of the Soviet-designed T-64 that he has repeatedly driven into battle through the muddy plains of Donbas over the past four months, recently sustaining damage when a Russian mortar shell knocked off part of its front left track. “I feel not just an emotional connection, but a living connection to it. It’s saved us from such hell that you can’t imagine.”

And yet Lishy, who commands a squad of three tanks fighting on the southern part of the front line, near the city of Velika Novosilka, can’t wait to trade “Baby” in for one of the dozens of Leopard 2 main battle tanks that Canada and other NATO allies are now starting to deliver to Ukraine.

“This tank has bad scopes, bad manoeuvrability, bad speed. It’s a tank designed in the 1960s,” Lishy says as artillery resounds somewhere nearby. “Western tanks, Leopard 2s, these are a totally different generation. It’s like cars. This is an old Soviet Lada, and that’s a modern Mercedes.”

Lishy is the nom de guerre of a bearded 28-year-old from the northern city of Zhytomyr who has been driving tanks since 2013. Ukrainian troops are only allowed to be identified by their code names when speaking to the media.

A member of Ukraine’s elite First Tank Brigade, Lishy predicts that the arrival of the Leopards will be “battle-changing” in Donbas, where tanks are deployed in large numbers along both sides of a swerving front line that is hundreds of kilometres long. Until now, Ukraine has relied on Soviet-era tanks such as the T-64 and T-72, many of which were built in factories in Ukraine.

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Ukrainian T64 stands idle, waiting for repairs in the forests of Donbas region on March 7.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Some of Lishy’s comrades in the First Tank Brigade are already in Germany, training to use the Leopards, which have a top speed of 70 kilometres an hour, compared with the 60 kilometres an hour of the T-64s. The Leopards also have a vastly superior targeting system.

“If I can look at that tree line over there and see whether that’s a fox or a person with a rocket-propelled grenade, it changes things,” says Lishy, who had hoped to be among the first group sent for training in Germany. “They told me I had to stay and fight.”

Poland, which was the first country to send tanks to Ukraine, announced on Tuesday that it would deliver 10 more Leopards this week, adding to the four it has already delivered. Four of the eight Leopards promised by Canada are now in Poland, where Canadian Forces troops are teaching Ukrainian drivers how to operate them, and the other four are en route.

In total, Ukraine is expecting its NATO allies to deliver between 120 and 140 modern battle tanks over the coming weeks and months. Most are the German-made Leopard 2s, while the United States has promised 31 of its advanced Abrams tanks, and Britain is sending 14 of its domestically produced Challenger 2s.

Sergeant Orest Firmanyuk, the press officer for the First Tank Brigade, said the new armour is expected to be spread out among various Ukrainian units rather than concentrated into a single brigade. The Leopards, Abrams and Challengers, he said, would allow Ukraine – which for the past two months has largely been on the defensive – to attempt a counterattack aimed at driving the invading Russian troops out of the roughly 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory they currently hold. “Tanks are offensive weapons,” he said.

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A German-donated armour evacuation vehicle, which uses the chassis of Leopard tank.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Delivering the tanks, and training Ukrainian crews, will only be the start. Ukraine will also need its allies in the West to continue to supply it with spare parts and ammunition for the vehicles. One of Ukraine’s challenges has been keeping its Soviet-era tanks on the battlefield when the parts and ammunition they require are largely manufactured in Russia.

The problem is so bad, Sgt. Firmanyuk said, that damaged tanks are being stripped of parts to keep other tanks going. Gunners, meanwhile, have to be selective about their targets because of an increasingly critical lack of ammunition.

“If we don’t have to economize shells, if can shoot whenever we want, 100 Western tanks which are well-equipped and supplied will be worth 200 Ukrainian tanks,” he said.

He called on Western governments to expedite the delivery of the promised new vehicles. “Time works against us because our tanks are getting older.”

Russia has also begun deploying some of its most advanced battle tanks, such as the T-90, to the front line, although they have not yet had a noticeable impact on the battlefield. The pride of the Russian army, the T-14 Armata, has yet to be seen in Ukraine. It’s unclear how many T-14s – which have thus far only been used in parades – have been produced.

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A Ukrainian T-64 is dug into a hill, awaiting a battle assignment.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Southern Donbas was the scene last month of the biggest tank battle of the war, with columns of Russian tanks charging the coal-mining city of Vuhledar. The assault failed, and photos published by the Ukrainian military showed dozens of destroyed Russian tanks left behind on the snowy battlefield.

“Sometimes they come in small groups, sometimes it’s an entire regiment attacking,” Lishy said. More often, however, his squad is charged with confronting small groups of Russian infantry as they try to slowly push the front line forward in this region, which President Vladimir Putin claimed last year to have annexed into the Russian Federation.

The heaviest fighting continues to be around the city of Bakhmut, 140 kilometres northwest of Velika Novosilka. With Russian forces moving closer to encircling Bakhmut – which has been almost completely destroyed over the course of a seven-month siege – there had been speculation that Ukrainian troops would soon be forced to withdraw.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a Monday night video address that the city’s defenders would instead be reinforced. “I told the commander-in-chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut,” he said.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, meanwhile, said Russian troops were close to “liberating” Bakhmut, which he referred to by its Soviet name, Artyemovsk. “The city is an important hub for defending Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions to be conducted deep into Ukraine’s defensive lines,” Mr. Shoigu said.

As the sounds of artillery grew louder near his squad’s hiding place Tuesday, Lishy said it was crucial that Ukraine hold its ground in Donbas against the ferocious Russian assault. “If we don’t stop them here, they’ll advance to the Dnipro,” he said, referring to a river that runs through the middle of the country.

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